Obama Has Finally Become Dick Cheney

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His administration wants to jail James Risen, a reporter who exposed Bush-era wrongdoing, if he doesn't reveal one of his sources

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In Barack Obama's rise to national prominence, when he criticized the Bush Administration for its false claims about WMDs in Iraq, its torture of detainees, and its illegal program of spying on American citizens without warrants, he owed a particular debt of gratitude to a New York Times national security reporter. In a series of scoops as impressive as any amassed during the War on Terrorism, James Risen reported in 2004 that the CIA failed to tell President Bush about relatives of Iraqi scientists who swore that the country had abandoned its weapons program; the same year, he was first to reveal that the CIA was waterboarding detainees in Iraq; and in 2005, he broke the Pulitzer Prize winning story about the secret NSA spying program.

These scoops so embarrassed and angered the Bush Administration that some of its senior members wanted Risen to end up in jail. They never managed to make that happen. But President Obama might. He once found obvious value in Risen's investigative journalism. Its work that would've been impossible to produce without confidential sources and an ability to credibly promise that he'd never reveal their identities. But no matter. The Obama Administration is now demanding that Risen reveal his source for a 2006 scoop about CIA missteps in Iran. If he refuses to cooperate, which is his plan, he faces the possibility of jail time.

Somewhere, Dick Cheney is smiling.

To understand why, a bit of history is required. Risen's national security reporting generally, and especially his scoop about the NSA's warrantless wiretapping, exposed illegal acts at the highest levels of government. Bush Administration officials speculated about having Risen tried and imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act, secretly surveilled his phone calls, and singled him out for harassment even when he was writing the same stories as other national security journalists, he reports in a sworn affidavit filed last week in a Virginia district court. "I was told by a reliable source that Vice President Dick Cheney pressured the Justice Department to personally target me because he was unhappy with my reporting and wanted to see me in jail," the affidavit states. "An organized campaign of hate mail from right wing groups with close ties to the White House was launched, inundating me with personal threats. Meanwhile, protestors supporting the Bush Administration picketed my office."

In 2006, Risen expanded on his newspaper reporting in a book entitled "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." Its a chapter of that book that concerns us here:

In Chapter 9 of State of War, I reported on Operation Merlin, an intelligence operation in 2000 during the Clinton Administration that was intended to stall - but which may have actually helped - Iran in its efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program. The plan behind Merlin was to have a former Russian scientist provide Iranian officials with faulty nuclear blueprints. The CIA hoped that based on those flawed plans, Iran would build an inoperable nuclear weapon....

As reported in Chapter 9, Merlin was deeply flawed and mismanaged from the start. First, the flaws in the nuclear blueprints were so obvious that the Russian scientist noticed them within minutes of seeing the plans. When the scientist explained this to his CIA handlers, they inexplicably refused to call off the operation and simply told him that he should go ahead and deliver the plans to the Iranians.

On January 24, 2008, the Bush Administration subpoenaed Risen, insisting that he reveal the confidential source for that chapter. Like any good reporter who promises confidentiality, he was prepared to go to jail rather than do so, and guessed that was the Bush Administration's intent all along. "I believe that this investigation started as part of an effort by the Bush Administration to punish me and silence me," Risen states. "In fact, the first subpoena issued to me was the culmination of a prolonged campaign against me by the Bush Administration and its supporters."

In his judgment, "the efforts to target me have continued under the Obama Administration, which has been aggressively investigating whistle-blowers and reporters in a way that will have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press in the United States." Risen received his second subpoena in April of 2010, and pressure has intensified since the January 6, 2011 indictment of former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, his alleged source, who is charged with leaking the classified information.

Near the end of his affidavit, Risen explains why he is willing to go to jail to avoid breaking his promise to a source. He couldn't have written his award winning books and newspaper pieces without the use of confidential sources, he insists. "Any testimony I were to provide to the Government would compromise to a significant degree my ability to continue reporting as well as the ability of other journalists to do so. This is particularly true in my current line of work covering stories relating to national security, intelligence, and terrorism. If I aided the government... I would be impeding all other reporters' ability to gather and report news in the future."

For some, that's the whole point. Dick Cheney would argue that laws against leaking classified information must be enforced because they are a vital tool in the War on Terrorism. Government officials cannot be permitted to reveal state secrets at their own discretion, nor can journalists be permitted to hide the lawbreaking of folks who jeopardize national security through leaks.

You'd think that President Obama would take a different view. After all, he might not be in the White House today if the Bush Administration would've succeeded in keeping all its secrets: the torture, the detainee deaths, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the spying on Americans, the faulty pre-war intelligence in Iraq, and all the rest. One would expect Obama of all people to see the value in Risen's reporting - the real ways in which he has helped to preserve civil liberties, American freedom, and accountability in government - and to weigh that against the national security implications of reporting in 2006 on a bungled CIA effort that happened way back in the year 2000.

Instead, a president who once championed whistle-blowers has adopted Cheney's view, and as Glenn Greenwald puts it, "the Obama administration appears on the verge of fulfilling Dick Cheney's nefarious wish beyond what even Cheney could achieve." All this while failing to prosecute the much more serious Bush era illegal acts that Risen has uncovered in his reporting.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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